Evangelism in the Early Church: A Gallery of Key Converts

Gregory Thaumaturgus

(c. 210–260) 
"The Wonder Worker"

Parents today sometimes worry that their children will go off to college and return as converts to some strange new religion. That’s exactly what happened 1,700 years ago to Gregory of Pontus, only the strange new religion was Christianity.

Born into an affluent pagan family in Neocaesarea (modern Turkey), Gregory studied law and the traditional Greek and Roman classics. Then he and his brother were sent for further study to Caesarea in Palestine, where they enrolled in the school of the great Christian thinker Origen. His teacher converted him (and his brother, Athenodorus) to Christianity.

When Gregory returned home, he found a Christian community of 17 people waiting for him. Soon afterward, Gregory was elected bishop. Although his training was in speculative theology, Gregory’s pastoral work was concerned with practical applications of the faith. His pastoral skills were such that some of his flock soon attributed miracles to him—hence his nickname, “The Wonder Worker.”

One legend (from a generation later) described the Virgin Mary directing the apostle John to instruct Gregory about the Trinity so the bishop could teach his catechumens. Another legend tells how two brothers quarreled over possession of a lake and asked Gregory to arbitrate between them: Gregory is said to have divided the lake into two bodies of water, giving one to each brother.

Legends or no, Gregory’s leadership must have been great, because during his ministry most of the city of Pontus converted to Christianity.

Doctrinal conflicts required him to participate in several church councils that condemned false teaching. In 253 and 254, he watched Goths sack his beloved home city. Roman rule survived for only another century, but the church Gregory built continues today.


(c. 200–258) 
Despairing pagan, sensible bishop

The conversion of Thascius Cyprianus was one of the best things to happen to the North African church—and to the Christian church as a whole.

He was born into the Roman upper class in North Africa. As an accomplished rhetorician, he was deeply versed in the pagan literature of the late Roman age. But Cyprian became friends with an elderly priest named Caecilius, who welcomed the young aristocrat and introduced him to his family—and to Christianity.

While Cyprian accepted the Christian God as true, he found Christian morality difficult. In light of the stubbornness of human nature and bad habits, he wondered, “How is such a conversion possible?” In particular, he questioned if he could do without public honors and wine.

Cyprian finally converted, and he discovered during his baptism that the power of God, and not his own efforts, made the Christian life possible:

"In a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves in me, hidden things to be revealed, dark things to be enlightened, and what before seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, and what had been thought impossible, to be capable of being achieved.”

With the zeal of a convert, Cyprian quickly mastered the Christian Scriptures and the writings of Christian theologians. Two years after his conversion, he was ordained a priest, and in spite of his own resistance, was then chosen to be bishop of Carthage.

Within a few months of his election, Emperor Decius began persecuting Christians in North Africa, and the new bishop was forced to flee. When he returned, he found his congregation in tatters. Some had lapsed from the faith making sacrifices to the pagan gods. Others still had kept their faith in Christ but had handed over precious copies of the Scriptures and sacred vessels to the Roman authorities. Still others had left the fellowship of the church to join the schismatic church of Novatian, a rigorist sect that disdained Christians who were too tolerant in forgiving those who had lapsed under the pressure of persecution.

Cyprian’s policies were moderate and sensible, earning him a permanent place in the history of the church. Against the Novatianists, he ruled the lapsed could indeed be restored to the church. But lest the church become lax, he also ruled that the lapsed must observe an appropriate time of penance for their lack of fortitude. As for those who handed over ecclesiastical property, he ruled each case was to be decided on its own merits. In all these disputes, Cyprian argued for the importance of the church, for, as he was famous for saying, “There is no salvation outside the church.”

His ministry was cut short by the persecution initiated by Emperor Valerian in 258, during which Cyprian was arrested and beheaded.


(died c. 327) 
The Christian Voltaire

The fourth-century bishop of Sicca in Numibia, Africa, was used to being ridiculed for his Christian faith. But his surprise could not have been greater when one of his greatest critics, Arnobius, appeared before him to humbly ask permission to receive instruction in the faith.

Arnobius had been devoted to the old gods to the point of gross superstition. But after witnessing the courageous martyrdoms of some Christians, and having a dream in which he was told to convert, he sought to become a catechumen.

In surprise—and perhaps because he did not yet trust Arnobius—the bishop asked the young philosopher if he would make a public renunciation of paganism. Arnobius replied that he would like nothing better and began work on his multivolumed Against the Nations, which refuted the charge that Christianity was responsible for the many plagues that raged through the empire. After finishing the first two books of his work, Arnobius was baptized. Then he wrote five more.

Arnobius’s favorite literary flourish was the rhetorical question, which he put to every pagan claim he could imagine. To the argument that paganism was superior because it was older, Arnobius replied curtly, “Is there anything older than him [God]?”

When pagan philosophers said it would have been carnal for a transcendent God to be born as a man, Arnobius listed page after page of the carnal exploits pagan sources ascribed to Jupiter, Saturn, and the other gods.

Yet his worst incriminations he leveled against himself for ever having believed in pagan gods: “O blindness that I worshiped images just brought from the furnaces, gods made on anvils and forged with hammers, the bones of elephants, paintings, wreathes on aged trees; whenever I espied an anointed stone . . . I addressed myself to it and begged blessings from a senseless stock.”

Because of Arnobius’s satire and invective against paganism, one historian called him “Voltaire on the side of the angels.”


(c. 250–c. 325) 
Defender of hope and life

One of Arnobius’s greatest gifts to the Christian church was his pupil Lucius Caecilius Firmianus, known to us as Lactantius. Like his master, Lactantius was an accomplished philosopher—so much so he was made a public rhetorician at the imperial city of Nicomedia.

It is not clear exactly what led Lactantius to convert (c. 300), but after he embraced Christianity, he was both an apologist and historian for the faith. He continued in his post until the great persecution of Diocletian in 303. He escaped arrest and torture, but not poverty and hunger.

Unlike his master, Arnobius, who used his skills to ridicule paganism, Lactantius attempted to promote Christianity among the learned classes by meticulously explaining what Christians believed. His The Divine Institutes is the first large scale attempt in common Latin to set forth Christian doctrine in a detailed and systematic manner. He assured his readers he would “speak of hope, of life, of salvation, of immortality, and of God, that we may put an end to deadly superstitions and most disgraceful errors.”

In his The Workmanship of God, Lactantius attempted to prove the existence of God from the wonders of the human body. In his tract The Wrath of God, he argued against philosophers who had criticized the Scriptures on the grounds that a sublime God cannot possibly be moved to anger. Lactantius replied that God is more than sublime or impassible—he is the master of the universe who is capable of direct action in time.

For less sophisticated readers, he wrote The Deaths of the Persecutors, a popular history that recounted in gruesome detail the horrible deaths that came to the emperors and other malefactors who had persecuted Christians.

Lactantius, like his mentor Arnobius, was later likened to a great secular writer. Some Renaissance humanists called him “the Christian Cicero.”


Pugnacious apologist

While some apologists tried to reconcile Christianity and philosophy, Tertullian tried to draw a sharp distinction between the Christian faith and the world.

Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullian was raised in Carthage in North Africa, educated in classical literature, and is said to have trained to be a lawyer. But some time around a.d. 197, he converted to Christianity and may have become a priest. Tertullian did not leave a record of his conversion, but many scholars believe that the heroism of Christian martyrs made a deep impression on him.

Tertullian declared that the church need not even argue with such people: “You will lose nothing but your breath and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy.”. His earliest known work is a letter of solace and encouragement to imprisoned Christians awaiting execution. Shortly after that, he sent a long letter to the Roman authorities mocking their attempts to suppress Christianity.

"We are but of yesterday,” he wrote, “but we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.”

Tertullian is more commonly remembered for his apologetic writings—and for his razor sharp wit—in defense of the Christian faith. To the pagan world, Tertullian’s tracts asserted that Christians posed no threat to the empire and were loyal citizens; so Christians should be tolerated.

In his writings to Christians, Tertullian warned that separation from pagan culture was necessary to avoid moral and doctrinal corruption. The theater, pagan banquets, public assemblies, and above all, the gladiatorial games were incompatible with Christian faith. “With such dainties” he wrote, “let the devil’s guests be feasted.”

Tertullian leveled his deepest criticism at those who attempted to change or modify the Christian faith. God, he insisted, was the same loving and merciful God in both the Old Testament and New; Christ was God incarnate and the fulfillment of all messianic prophesy, and the church alone carried on the legitimate faith received from the apostles.

Gnostics, heretics, schismatics, and pagans, he said, were just plain wrong. They had no right to quote the Scriptures, which did not belong to them anyway.

Tertullian declared that the church need not even argue with such people: “You will lose nothing but your breath and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy.”

But with Christians he did argue, in book after book. He disliked infant baptism, believed the return of Christ was at hand, and had little time for clergy, who were (in his opinion) lenient about sexual immorality. He believed the Holy Spirit still spoke through believers of his day, and he held this belief so strongly, he ended his days among the Montanists, a movement eventually condemned by the church.

Nonetheless, his learning and writing have earned him a lasting legacy as one of the great African Fathers of the church. CH

By Gregory P. Elder

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #57 in 1998]

Gregory Elder is assistant professor of history at Riverside Community College in Riverside, California.
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